USL’s growing pains – Part 1
A recap of rumors and events affecting the USL
Over the last several months there have been rumblings concerning USL that reached a fevered pitch leading up to the USL AGMs which took place November 21-23. For those of you who are proudly not uber USL geeks, but do have a general interest in the MN Thunder, let me explain.
Every year in late November, the United Soccer Leagues holds their annual Soccer Fest in Tampa, Florida. At the same time they conduct their league meetings or Annual General Meetings (AGM) where league business is handled. Schedules for the following year are hammered out and the league has workshops for teams concerning media exposure and partnering with European teams to name just a few topics. League executives mingle with team owners and general managers. Many important decisions concerning the league are made at these meetings.
Going into this event there was much talk on discussion boards, blogs and soccer media web sites concerning several teams that were unhappy with the league, and possibly Nike, for not giving the team owners the control they wanted.
Nike and the league
Back in March 2006, Umbro purchased a 94% share of the league. Then, in October of 2007, Nike announced the purchase of Umbro. This transaction was finished in February 2008. This means Nike now owns the USL even though Umbro is still the league owner by logo and sponsorship. Adidas is the sponsor for MLS. It seems Nike would be wise to use their marketing skills to make inroads into the US soccer scene, either with he swoosh or the traditional Umbro label. Umbro’s name still has a large and traditional brand identity in Europe and the UK in particular. However, Umbro has never been known as the most innovative company when it comes to marketing. Either with Umbro or with Nike, it seems the league needs Nike to lend a hand to raise the brand identity of the USL.
All is quiet on the USL front
The meetings were adjourned, the league and its teams all went home and while MLS stole the show with Commissioner Don Garber’s address concerning the future of the league and the MLS Cup game itself, the USL didn’t let out a peep. No press releases, no news, nothing. In fact the league seemed to be more tight lipped then ever. Allison Andrews, a long time USL fan who has been going to these meetings and reporting on them (day 1, day 2) for several years, told IMS that there wasn’t any news coming out of the league meetings this year. She wasn’t allowed into some of the meetings she was previously allowed to attend. Rumors were still flying but the USL said nothing, thereby missing a chance for some positive media PR.
To try to explain the rumors and my beliefs about what might be happening with the league, I need to go back to the beginning of the 2008 season. In May 2008, Manny Lagos told a group of Dark Clouds, (the supporters group for the MN Thunder), that Nike and the league were putting pressure on the teams to improve their product on the the field. Nike was also putting pressure on the USL-1 teams to play in soccer specific stadiums. Lagos claimed that this played large in the team’s mid-season decision to pack things up at James Griffin Stadium in St. Paul and move back out to the National Sports Center, where the team had played some 5 seasons earlier. He also told the group that the league would be breaking some news during the season. The news never came.
A little over a month ago I was supposed to interview Dean Johnson, one of two owners of the Thunder. I told Johnson I wanted to talk about the League and the changes that were supposed to be coming. Johnson had previously agreed to do this interview in mid October. Johnson ended up canceling the meeting saying things had not gotten resolved between the parties involved and he was not able to talk about any of that at the present time.
The week previous to the AGMs, I set up an interview to talk to Thunder General Manager, Djorn Buchholz, about some of the changes that we might be seeing for the 2009 season. He agreed to talk to me when the organization returned from the AGMs. When I contacted him after the meetings, all he could tell me was he was no longer able to talk at this time until the league officially comes out with news or press releases.
So evidently, it was pressed upon all organizations from the USL that they should stay quiet with information regarding the league. I understand why USL may want to control this situation. But if they are going to control it, then do that. Don’t sit on it and pretend it’s not there. In these modern days of communication, I’m contacting people from west coast to east coast in a matter of moments, checking to see what they know about the situation. These are good reliable people and not muckrakers. Does the league really think that if they don’t say anything, all the issues will disappear?
USL Owners Association
Previous to the AGMs, there was talk of a few teams wanting to break away from USL-1. It was crazy talk if the rumors were true, but the rumors seemed to persist. Supposedly, a group of owners felt the League and Nike were not supporting the owners in a manner they saw appropriate if they were to compete with MLS. I want to point out that to the best of my knowledge, the Thunder were never part of this rogue group and had no interest in breaking off. However, I do believe the Thunder were a part of a group of owners that were trying to leverage more power from the league. Team owner Johnson was questioned about MLS in a radio interview last spring. He said, “We want to stay in the League we’re in.” He went on to say that MLS is a “superficial league”, a marketing creation, while noting that in the USL teams are owned by owners rather than by the league, as they are in MLS.
There seem to be two teams that have been a bit more vocal in this movement to give team owners more control. One of them is Traffic, Inc. who owns Miami FC. Aaron Davidson is vice president of Traffic, Inc. and president of Miami FC. Davidson seems to be an influential character in the battle for power with the league. Traffic, Inc. exports soccer talent from South America to destinations around the globe. In a move that seemed to be created by Traffic and Miami FC, dasher boards surrounding the field in Barbados when the U.S. National team played there in June, proclaimed “USL Team Owners Association,” or something similar. My sources tell me that many of the parties involved with this “USL Team Owners Association” or whatever the official name of this group is, knew nothing of this signage in Barbados until after the fact and that it may actually have been a bit of an embarrassment. If I recall correctly, there were also signs for Traffic, Inc. on those dasher boards.
The other player in this group may be the Saputo family who owns the Montreal Impact. I found it quite interesting that Montreal supposedly made a bid for an MLS team, but never came up with the full 40 million dollars that MLS wanted for a franchise. On top of that, they wanted to deduct the amount it would cost to upgrade their new stadium to MLS standards for seating capacity. Was Montreal truly interested in getting a bid to move into MLS or was this a move to get USL’s attention? Montreal finished 3rd in the league and had a hell of a year in the CONCACAF Champions League where they are still alive and will resume play in February. I’ve also heard that the awarding of an MLS franchise to the Seattle Sounders, a long time USL team, was a big wake up call for USL. Other owners in the league wanted the USL administration to be more active in making the league competitive, not necessarily with the product on the field, but with the way the league is marketed.
Tomorrow, part 2 and what USL might do to help its image.